This article examines the Greek verb that is translated variously as "forgive," "leave," and "let." However, the word means primarily to "leave" or "let go." This article focuses on its translation as "forgive" ibecause it is the most problematic. We explain why in this article. This article was one part of a larger article about the phrase "forgive sins" that covered both the verb discussed here and the noun discussed in detail separately. That original article is here.
This is Jesus's first word in the Gospels (Matthew 3:15) when he tells John to "suffer" baptizing him. It is often translated as "to leave" or "to let" in the Gospels. It is first translated as "forgive" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12) where it is applied to forgiving debts.
"Forgiving sins" is a common phrase in the translation of the NT (see the article the word translated as "sin" here). However, because the word translated as "forgive" doesn't mean "pardon" except in the most abstract sense, we have to look deeper into the Greek to see what Jesus meant. This look must also include the words that he chose not to use. For example, the Greek verbs that specifically mean "pardoning" for an injury and "absolving" sins are not used by Jesus.
The Greek Word Aphiemi
The Greek term translated as "forgive" is aphiêmi (ἀφίημι), which means "to let fall", "to send away", "give up", "hand over", "to let loose", "to get rid of", "to leave alone", "to pass by", "to permit," and "to send forth from oneself." It means literally “to go from." It was use something like we use the phrase, "let is go." One of the reasons that Christ really liked this word is because he loved words that are full of different shades of meanings like this one.
We can see the flexibility of this word in the way it is translated. In the KJV, this word is translated primarily as "leave" and related words such as "forsake," and "let alone" a total of sixty-four times. Its second most common translation is "forgive," which is the translation forty-six times. It is also translated as "suffer" fourteen times and "let" eight times. Thirteen other times it is translated a variety of ways.
Apiemi has the sense of both leaving something alone and leaving a place. It is the verb version of the noun that means “letting go,” aphesis. To me, it is very interesting that aphiemi is Jesus’s first word in the Gospel (Matthew 3:15) when he responds to John's concerns by saying, "let it be” or "suffer this," depending on the translation. It is commonly translated as "to leave" or "to let" in the Gospels. It is first translated as "forgive" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12) where it is applied to forgiving "debts" not "sins" or "trespasses."
Aphiemi is also sometimes translated to mean “to send forth” or “go forth” even though that meaning is a little misleading as well. Christ “sends forth” the apostles. The shepherd looking for the lost lamb “goes forth” into the mountains. Both are translations of aphiemi.
As with all multi-meaning words, its translated depends on the context. For example, this word is usually translated as "forgive" when associated with the noun translated as "sin," hamartia. Conveniently, the translation as "forgive" also works with other objects such as the Greek word for "debt" (ὀφειλήματα, opheilema) or the word translated as "trespasses" (παραπτώματα, paratoma). This question is whether or not this translation is justified and whether or not there are actually a better, more accurate way to think about this phrase. Note the its more literal translation of the verb as "let go" works for "letting go" of "mistakes," "debts," and "blunders," the more literal translation of these nouns.
However, many times, this word's translation depends on prejudices of the translators, For example, a clause like "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34) could also be translated accurately as "Father, leave them alone" or "Father, give up on them". These are two very different ideas. The word's translation as "forgive" eliminates this confusion, but does the meaning of the word justify it? Again, from his use, Jesus uses this verb most consistently to mean "let it go" or in this case "let them go," which has an interesting double meaning.
To research the justification for translated this word as "forgive," we need first to look at the Greek Septuagint to see if Greek-speaking Judeans preceding the time of Jesus used it this way.
OT Use in Septuagint
While it is clear that the idea of "forgive" is not associated with aphiemi in most ancient Greek, what we care about is the Greek of Judea in Jesus's time. For that, we go to the Greek Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT. Whenever Jesus quotes the OT, he uses the words of the Septuagint, often exactly, but always with the same general vocabulary. So the question is, did Jesus get his words for "letting go of mistakes" from somewhere in the Septuagint?
The answer is that he did not.
Aphiemi is used about half as much in the OT Greek Septuagint than the NT Greek, 75 times as compared to 143 times. In the Greek Septuagint, there are only a handful of verses that express the concept of "forgiving sins." None of these phrases seem to use the same Greek words that Jesus does that is translated as "forgive sins", specifically the verb, aphiemi, with the noun, hamartia. All these verses translate the Hebrew verb nosa (nosah,נָשָׂא), as "forgive." The problem is that this word means "to lift," "to carry," and "to take." This word is usually translated into Greek was some form of the Greek word, airo, which to mean "lift" and "remove." It is not usually translated into English as "forgive." This translation is used only when associated with some sort of wrongness.
The Hebrew nasa is only translated as the Greek alphiemi in three OT verses, Genesis 50:17 (here in the Greek), Psalm 32:5 (here in Greek), and Psalm 85:2 ( here in Greek). None of these verses use the noun, hamartia. Genesis uses the word usually translated as "lawless" (ἀδικία, adikia), which means "injustice" or "not virtuous." The Psalms use the Greek word translated as "inequity" (ἀνομίαν, anomia), which means is "without law" or "lawless."
Interestingly, two other verses that express the idea "forgiving sins, Exodus 34:7, and Numbers 14:18., do not use apheimi, but a verbthat starts like it, aphaireo, (ἀφαιρεθήσεται). This is a form of airo, mentioned above meaning "lift." The most common verse cited as referring to "forgiving sins," Micah 7:18 (here in the Septuagint) uses a different form of this same root, exairo (ἐκαἴρω), which means "to lift up," "to lift away," and "to remove." This Greek word is interesting because it is most common translated as into English as "pardon." In the OT, this word is used over a hundred times, but it is also never associated with the Greek word translated as "sin." In Micah, it is used with adikia.
There are many Septuagint verses using the Greek hamartia, but only one, Numbers 14:18, cited above, refers to the concept of "removing" or "lifting up" the word translated as "sin," hamartia. There are, of course, many OT verses referring to God's mercy, but the focus here is on the specific idea so dominant in Christian philosophy and its meaning.
(NOTE: if someone knows or find any references in the OT to the "forgiveness of sins" please let me know. I will add the Greek vocabulary used in the GREEK OT here. I have only found two so far that come close, see below.)
If we return to the central is of "letting go" in translating aphiemi, we come closer to understanding Jesus's use of this word. "Letting go" captures both the idea of releasing something and freeing something. The idea of letting go of "mistakes," a better translation of hamartia, has the sense both of not repeating them and not dwelling on them. This idea can be usefully applied both to our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. This idea seems to originate with Jesus since these words were never used together in the Greek OT.
The translation of aphiemi as "forgive" is loaded with centuries of Christian doctrine regarding "sin." So much so that we have a difficult time of separating the two concepts. The evidence seems to indicated, however, that neither our concept of "sin" nor "forgive" existed in this form in the time of Christ or in Jesus's words.
"Forgive" is also problematic because it is closely associated in English the concept of "pardon." Of course, this association itself seems to come largely from Christian teaching if not Jesus's words. In Greek "pardon" is much more closely associated with the idea of "lifting up" rather than "letting go." This make more sense if we think of our mistakes as a weight we carry. Of course, the Greek word translated as "evil" also means "burdened with toil."
But there are other words in Greek at the time that are used for various ideas of "forgive" in the NT. Many are based on the root, aidôs, which means "respect for others", "reverence", "compassion," and "forgiveness." It is a more saintly form of forgiveness. Sunchôreô is another root which means "assent" or "concede" and is used to mean the economic forgiveness of debt.